Friday, September 04, 2015

Abortion, excommunication and mercy: a response to Damon Linker

Damon Linker, once an editor at the conservative magazine First Things, writes this thought-provoking piece in The Week today: How Pope Francis is perpetuating the Catholic Church's radical anti-abortion position.

Here's the main point.
Of all the extra-ecclesiastical sins, crimes, and acts of cruelty and intentional evil that the members of the human race have devised and enacted down through the millennia, only abortion rises to the status of a sin so grave that it leads to instantaneous expulsion from the church — an expulsion that can only be reversed when a local bishop makes a one-off exception or the Bishop of Rome declares a special time-limited period of absolution. 
An outside observer (and maybe a Catholic layperson or two) might see this as yet another example of how a church run exclusively by celibate bachelors just so happens to end up treating women as at once purer and requiring a greater degree of paternalistic oversight than men.
Therefore, he concludes, the truly merciful thing that the Holy Father could do would be to eliminate this singling out of abortion, and treat it, well, simply like any other homicide. (Incidentally, in the Code of Canon Law for Eastern Churches, all homicides incur a penalty of excommunication already -- that is, abortion isn't singled out.)

I first saw the article linked on the timeline of a Facebook friend, who added that Linker tends to engage Catholic doctrine before trying to critique it. That has been my experience as well. However, Linker misses some very important facts concerning the complicated reality of abortion and canon law.

First of all, there seems to be no awareness of the fact that the gesture the Pope seems to be making (and I put it thus, because there is some ambiguity regarding what he has stated that needs clarification. More on that below), is already the canonical practice at least in most of the United States and Canada, and possibly in other parts of the world. The Holy Father is universalizing (albeit, right now, just for the period of the Jubilee), what is the canonical and pastoral reality in many parts of the world, i.e. every priest who has the faculty to hear confessions, also receives the faculty to remit the penalty of latae sententiae excommunication incurred by the procuring of an abortion (or being involved formally in that crime).

There's really a whole complex raft of canonical issues that surround abortion -- the fact that it's a sin, as well as a canonical crime that carries a particular penalty: latae sententiae excommunication. This is often, but incorrectly, translated as "automatic excommunication" by even reputable Catholic sources. Latae sententiae - Latin for "the sentence having been carried out" - is one of the ways in which the penalty of excommunication is applied. (The other main way is what is known as ferendae sententiae, i.e. a declaration by competent authority that someone has incurred the penalty.)

Basically not every woman who commits the grave sin of abortion is actually excommunicated. The law gives many exceptions, for age (under 16), being forced or coerced (hardly uncommon), and being ignorant of the penalty. So if a woman truly does not know that there is the penalty of excommunication applicable, she does not incur the penalty. Of course, she commits an objective evil, and is guilty of grave sin. (However, remember too, that culpability for grave sin can be diminished by factors that diminish the freedom and knowledge of the subject.) Calling it "automatic" therefore, is a real stretch, as was pointed out to me by another priest-friend on social media this week.

Why is this one of the few so-called "reserved sins?" I don't know the history of abortion and the penalty of latae sententiae excommunication. I don't know if the 1983 code softened older penalties in the 1917 code (I'm not a canonist). However, one thing comes to mind. The law is a teacher, and the penalty may be there to underline the particular gravity of this sin, because it destroys life at its source (ab ortu). As always, the Church is very understanding of human frailty and merciful in how these penalties are applied and lifted.

For a good summary of the various canonical questions surrounding this issue, as well as the ambiguities in the papal statement (it was a letter, not a legislative text), I recommend this excellent piece from the Register, by canonist Benedict Nguyen. The eminent blogging canonist Dr. Ed Peters argues that latae sententiae excommunications are no longer useful in today's context. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law reduced their number drastically. He suggests they should be removed entirely (for instance, here). It should also be pointed out that the Eastern Churches do not have a tradition of latae sententiae excommunication. (In the East, abortion remains a sin that requires the Bishop's permission for absolution, as far as I know. How that is handled practically, I do not know.) Peters has also argued that the Roman Church impose the penalty of excommunication (not latae sententiae) for all homicides (i.e. follow the canonical practice of the East) -- the opposite conclusion, somewhat, from what Linker argues. Peters' treatment of the story as it broke on Sept. 1 is also worth reading.

According to a friend who is a canonist, the procedure for a person seeking reconciliation in the case of those places where the priest does not have faculties (i.e. not in most parts of the the United States), would go something like this: If a woman (or anyone complicit in the act) approaches a confessor without the requisite faculties, they are advised to come back at a mutually convenient time (allowing for the preservation of anonymity), while the priest contacts the Bishop to get the necessary faculties, so he can lift the penalty and then impart absolution. (This would also, incidentally, be the procedure if a particular case required recourse the Apostolic Penitentiary.) Everything is handled in the internal forum, i.e. preserving anonymity (if the penitent so wishes), as well as the seal of the confessional.

On Tuesday, when this story broke, social media was abuzz with the various attempts (some truly awful) by the secular media to grapple with this issue, and a lot of us were trying to figure out what exactly was being conceded. My friend and fellow Atlanta priest, Fr. Joshua Allen at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center wrote a beautiful post on Facebook (which, though public, cannot be linked outside FB), the bottom line of which is this: for a woman (or anyone else) wondering if they have been forgiven of this sin in the confessional: yes you have. It is not the penitent's responsibility to understand these complicated details of canon law. God is always merciful, and the smallest bit of contrition is always met with mercy. Quote:
To any of you who have been confused or hurt by the reporting on the Pope's comments, I am truly sorry, as is basically every priest in the world. The last thing anyone would want, from Pope Francis to the newest priest on the block, is for someone to begin questioning whether their previous confessions and reception of God's mercy were real. The most recognizable attribute of our God is MERCY...there are no sins that cannot be forgiven when brought with a humble and contrite heart to one of God's ministers of mercy.
Finally, speaking as a confessor -- this sin comes up not infrequently. And more often than not it is a sin from the past, that has been repeatedly brought to the sacrament. The scars it leaves are truly horrendous, and there is such a need for healing. The various post-abortive ministries (such as Rachel's Vineyard) truly do great work. And it is in that vein, with the heart of a father, that the Holy Father wants to make it easier for women to receive the healing they need. That is eminently appropriate for a Jubilee of Mercy.

Disclaimer: I am a parish priest, not a canon lawyer. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

"I just got into an argument with a homosexual. So much for charity"

I had just gotten into my car after celebrating the monthly Holy Mass at a nearby nursing home. My phone was lit up. The first text I saw said, "Look up SCOTUS."

So, decision day was here. As social media exploded around me -- in chagrin, in outrage, in delight, in exultation, in triumph -- I quickly typed out the first of many Facebook commentaries for the day. Perhaps in another blog post I'll share these writing publicly. Perhaps not.

[At the end of the day I also noted that the overwhelming majority of my newsfeed was critical of the SCOTUS decision, reflecting the extent to which my online life is the echo chamber that we all solemnly recognize as being a Bad Thing. I know that some of my younger flock -- college kids on fire for the Lord and their faith -- were facing the anguish of being completely out of step with their peers, and one of my many incursions online today was to encourage them.]

A little while later I got a text from a seminarian friend, in a parish and a diocese that will remain unnamed. "I just got into an argument with a homosexual. So much for charity." I urged him to listen, and not argue. "Go apologize. Let him know that his clergy love him." I said a prayer for this interaction, and went about the rest of my affairs for the day.

A few hours later, another text message. "Well, after he spoke for an hour, and cried almost the whole time, there was a productive encounter." The details of the conversation are absolutely no one's business online, of course. That this conversation happened at all is both beautiful and providential. In all the discourse and verbiage that has been poured out this day, the news of this little encounter, this interaction, buoyed me, gave me hope. The Lord was at work!

I do think this is what our Holy Father urges us to all the time -- to accompaniment. Walking with the other. Listening.
We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives. (Evangelii Gaudium, 171) 
One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow. (Evangelii Gaudium, 172) 
None of this of course means -- as so many both inside and outside the Church suggest -- that we ignore the truth of God's plan for human sexuality, for marriage, or the intrinsic sinfulness of all sexual activity outside marriage, including homosexual activity. [Inside the Church, this is the fruit of decades of a pastoral practice that has been an utter disaster, which is to say, a near complete lack of evangelization, of catechesis, as well as the poison of dissent and moral corruption. Indeed, as one of my priest friends pointed out, today's decision was made by an overwhelmingly Catholic Supreme Court!]
Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. (Evangelii Gaudium, 170)
If there is no concrete experience of love, of acceptance, of true spiritual accompaniment, in the Church -- where else will those who struggle with SSA, or identify as LGBT, go, but to the secular world that offers an embrace and acceptance? No one wants to live like a pariah, in shame, in hiding. [We should certainly understand this, as we fear that fate coming to us, to our institutions, as the juggernaut of social change now considers our carefully reasoned positions to be nothing but gussied up hate and bigotry, to be marginalized, eviscerated, and utterly demolished.]

How will anyone actually listen to what we have to say? How will they actually hear us as we lay out the beautiful vision of life in Christ? We cannot simply be content to shout the truth and then complacently tell each other that they just won't listen, so clearly their hearts are hardened and they have rejected God. I don't think we can let ourselves off the hook that easily. That is not the proclamation of the Good News at all.

If we have experienced great mercy, then we must also show that to others. The Lord Himself says that (Mt. 18:21-35). In a discourse I come back to frequently, from back in 2001, in a meeting with the lay movement Communion & Liberation, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said:
We cannot understand this dynamic of encounter which brings forth wonder and adherence if it has not been triggered–forgive me the use of this word–by mercy. Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. ... however, forcing things a bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.
We must bear this mercy of the Lord, this call to repentance and to true life in Christ, fearlessly, and lovingly, to a wounded world. It is only out of this encounter that a true conversion, a turning of life, is born.

May there be many more such conversations, and encounters, in our parishes, in this Jubilee of Mercy ahead.

May this day not be one of sadness, for the victory is the Lord's, but one of a commitment to a renewed effort at sharing the joy of the Gospel, of human life lived fully and truly, in Christ. Let us always turn to Our Lady, always trusting in her promise, that Her Immaculate Heart will, indeed, triumph.

Courageous people who have embraced the Lord, and His Church.

The Courage Apostolate
The Desire of the Everlasting Hills

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Throwback Thursday -- a bit of parish history

From the redoubtable Pete Konenkamp, one of the managers of the St. Joseph Parish Facebook page.

On the ground ecumenism from the late 1960s. A long-time parishioner (who's been at St. Joseph since 1959) was just telling me about this incident earlier in the week! According to him, this arrangement didn't last too long, however. Apparently folks weren't too comfortable having Mass at First Christian. I didn't quite catch what happened afterward ...

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Obstacles to forgiving

Something to meditate on this Lent:
One of the biggest obstacles to forgiving is the feeling that the other party's behavior has deprived us of something important, even vital. This confused feeling nourishes resentment. The thing in question may be material, or affective or moral (not getting the love I had a right to, or the esteem, etc.), or even spiritual (the behavior of the person at the head of my community keeps my spiritual life from developing as it should...).
To live at peace, even when it is the people around us who are causing us suffering, we must take a fresh, radical look at our frustration. It does not correspond to reality. Other people's faults do not deprive us of anything. We have no valid reason for resenting them or their actions. 
On the material plane, of course, other people can deprive us of things. But not of what is essential, the only true and lasting good: God's love for us and the love we can have for him, with the inner growth it produces. Nobody can prevent us from believing in God, hoping in him, and loving him, everywhere and in all circumstances. Faith, hope, and love make human beings fully human. All else is secondary and relative; even if we are deprived of it, that is not an absolute evil. There is something indestructible that is guaranteed by God's faithfulness and love.... 
Rather than wasting time and energy blaming others for what isn't working out, or reproaching them for what we think they are depriving us of, we should strive to acquire spiritual autonomy by deepening our relationship with God, the one unfailing source of all good, and growing in faith, hope, and disinterested love. That others are sinners cannot prevent us from becoming saints. Nobody really deprives us of anything. At the end of our lives, when we come face to face with God, it would be childish to blame others for our lack of spiritual progress.

-- Fr. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom  (H/t Clayton from MN, on FB) 

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Mass as the Council intended it ... ?

[I posted this on Facebook a couple of nights ago, after reading an interview with Robert Cardinal Sarah on Aleteia (so far only in French). The post sort of grew as I was typing ... ] 

Thank you, your Eminence! This is from Robert Cardinal Sarah, who was recently appointed to head the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by the Holy Father. 
Le Concile Vatican II n’a jamais demandé de rejeter le passé et d’abandonner la messe de saint Pie V, qui a engendré de nombreux saints, ni même de laisser le latin. Mais il faut en même temps promouvoir la réforme liturgique voulue par le Concile lui-même
La réform liturgique voulue par le Concile ... the liturgical reform desired by the Council.

So, what does the Council say?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Joshua Bishop

On Monday, the State of Georgia was going to execute Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row.  Her execution was postponed because of apparent problems with the drug cocktail that performs the deed. Also, it seems there is a temporary halt on all executions until the pharmaceutical issues have been sorted out. This year so far, Georgia has already executed two people: Andrew Brannen and Warren Lee Hill, in January.

(Photo courtesy The Georgia Bulletin)
Thanks to my friends, Gary & Diana, I have come to know Joshua Bishop, another inmate on the state's death row. We've exchanged a brief correspondence -- the lapse in which is entirely my fault. Joshua committed a horrible crime, back in 1994, when he was 19, and was sentenced in 1996. Over the years, he became friends with Gary & Diana. This friendship drew him to Christ, and to the Catholic Church. When he was 23, he was baptized by the late Archbishop Donoghue, in the prison in Jackson. Gary & Diana became his godparents, in absentia. An article in the Georgia Bulletin talks about this friendship between them. In that article, Joshua writes:
“The family of the church has saved me,” Bishop wrote. “Every day is not a picnic, but I try every day to live my Christian faith by doing something positive with my life left. Society with the death penalty say(s) we are unredeemable. But the change in me is to say no matter what they say I must still offer my life up to give back anything I can that will be positive to those I hurt and those that live around me.” 
“The family of the church has saved me. If it’s not a ‘family’ it’s not true or real. But the Catholic church that I am a member of is so, so real because I have the love of family—God’s love, God’s family, and on death row, seeing friends executed, you need that love of family that God provides,” he wrote.
Last year, Fr. Augustin Fogarty, one of my fellow Atlanta priests, died. Fr. Fogarty had for years ministered to prisoners, including those on death row, and Joshua. The Georgia Bulletin published a heartfelt testimony to this friendship. Reading it once more brings tears to my eyes again.
But he was a stern man too at times. He was open to things, but the traditions he held in high esteem. The Body and Blood of Christ—that, he said, was in essence our belief. God gave to us life so we take in his gift of Body and Blood. 
I used to fear dying, but Father Austin told me to fear only the things left undone. Take care of your heart, love others, and have your spirit clean from any hate or anger for the laws of man. 
Sometimes we would talk about how mad this place made us, and Father Austin would agree that the death penalty was wrong in his light Irish speech, nearly hidden behind his neat white mustache. 
Father Austin was our father. Lots of us did not have a father to teach us things about treating our fellowman with love and respect. 
Father Austin loved us. He would tell us each one. “I love you, Joshua.” “I love you, Lenny.” “I love you, Warren.” He’d tell each of us that man only has power over our bodies. But God has power over the men who prepare us for execution. So we should show love to them and let God speak to them through our actions. I never felt a negative thing or word from him.
Now word comes from his lawyers that time is running out for Joshua. It is possible that the State will execute him as early as the end of this month.

If you are reading this, and are moved by this, drop him a line, a card or a letter. Remember, visiting the imprisoned is one of the corporal works of mercy. Pray for him, for his family. Pray for Leverett Lewis Morrison, the man he murdered in 1994, and his family and loved ones. Pray for an end to the death penalty in our country.

Joshua Bishop, 865709
GDCP - G1-31
PO Box 3877
Jackson, GA  30233

Friday, February 20, 2015

Confess just one sin to the priest?

In seminary our professors shared stories of the "crazy days" (the general period of confusion [doctrinal, theological, liturgical] in the Church, lasting 20 years or more, soon after the Second Vatican Council concluded, until the 1980s, perhaps later), for instance, the abuse of General Absolution (Form III in the revised Rite of Penance), where certain bishops would hold giant penance services in stadiums, and then conclude with General Absolution. This practice was severely criticized by the Magisterium (for instance see the motu proprio Misericordia Dei issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 2002). We'd all laugh at the absurdity of it. Those crazy 70s. 

However, another version is something I experienced (it matters not where), in the mid 1990s, when I was in college. A penance service where after the Liturgy of the Word and the homily, the priest invited everyone present to come up to him in a line and whisper one sin for which he (the penitent) felt really sorry. I was relatively newly baptized, and didn't know any better. I cannot recall if I was limited to saying one sin, or whether it was even a sin we were supposed to share, or just one attitude, or attachment, or something like that. I was at that parish for a short time, and have never experienced anything like that since. 

It turns out, that this practice hasn't completely disappeared, and I've heard of places that still offer services like this, where penitents are told implicitly, if not explicitly, not to make what is known as an integral or complete, confession, which is what is required by the Church for a valid confession, under ordinary circumstances. 

And then we wonder why the Sacrament practically disappeared from the life of the Church?

So, just to be clear, this is what the Church teaches about an integral confession

First, confession to a priest is an important and essential part of the Sacrament. Without this, the Sacrament does not take place. The other elements are: a good examination of conscience, contrition, purpose of amendment (i.e., you are resolved to change and not to sin anymore), and acceptance of penance. 

Let's look at confession to a priest 

The Code of Canon Law:
Canon  960 Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 
1456 Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly."(quoting the Council of  Trent)
Grave matter [one of the requirements for a sin to be mortal, i.e. dealing a death blow to the life of charity, of grace, in the soul] has to do with sins against the Ten Commandments. The Catechism again:
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother." The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
Mortal sins must be confessed, to the best of one's ability, in number and kind, with enough explanation so that the priest is able to judge the species, i.e. the nature of the sin. 
Canon 988. §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all serious sins committed after baptism and not yet directly remitted through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, for which one is conscious after diligent examination of conscience.
§2. It is to be recommended to the Christian faithful that venial sins also be confessed.
An integral confession is one in which all the necessary steps for the Sacrament to take place are present -- 
  • A good examination of conscience
  • Contrition (i.e. sorrow for sin, or repentance)
  • Amendment of purpose
  • Confession to a Priest, including a full confession of mortal sins
  • Absolution by a Priest
  • Acceptance of Penance. (It is not necessary, technically, that one complete the penance. One should have the intention to do so, and it is recommended therefore to complete the penance soon after Confession. However, through no fault of one's own, if one forgets to perform the penance, the confession isn't rendered invalid.) 
(A note to those who are afflicted with scrupulosity. If this is a tendency you recognize, talk to a priest in the confessional about it and follow his advice. It is good, if you are able, to get a regular confessor who can know you and help you with this.)

The underlying foundation of all of this, is, of course, one's relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, one's desire to please God above all things, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to grow in virtue, i.e. in holiness, especially charity, and to fulfill our destiny as beloved sons and daughters of God -- to arrive at the life of beatitude in heaven with the angels and saints for all eternity. 

A penance service that simply asks the penitent to confess one sin is risking an invalid confession, if the penitent does not confess all mortal sins in number and in kind. If he does this in good faith, in ignorance, one might suppose that the Lord will not withhold His mercy, however, outside the Sacramental economy, we can't just say what God will or will not do. We are not his bosses! This kind of confusion defeats the whole purpose of the Sacrament, of the sacramental economy and the foundation of a visible Church by Our Lord! Fr. Z has a recent post where he rants precisely about this eventuality

I cannot understand why a priest would wilfully wish to subvert the practice of the Church in this regard, in something so central to the salvation of souls, the essential reason for the institution of the priesthood by Our Lord! 

If the reason given is that there is a lack of priests, well, goodness, we are not that short. In the United States, one can muster a good half a dozen to a dozen priests for a parish penance service fairly easily. In our area, all of our priests help out at nearby parishes (which for us means within about a 90 minute driving distance) regularly during Lent and Advent. We spend hours listening to long lines of penitents unburden their sins and receive the Lord's forgiveness and grace. To invent a shortage is disingenuous at best. 

The commission of a grave sin after baptism is a commonplace reality. However, its frequency does not change the fact that it is a serious matter. Our early forebearers in the faith took it so seriously, that many delayed baptism until they were older, or near dying! It is precisely to address this all too frequent reality of fallen human beings that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and by the authority of the Church, the Sacrament of Penance, instituted by Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, developed its form to what we have today -- auricular confession of an individual penitent to a priest.

The fact that historically the Sacrament has taken different forms does not mean that the form it has today (and has had for centuries in the West) is therefore not suited to our time. The fact that the Church has determined this form, and that priests actually trust and obey the Church, is not a sign of rigidity or legalism or Pharisaism or clericalism or any of the other insults faithful priests are confronted with when they challenge the abuse of the Sacrament. Nor is it up to us priests on our own whim and authority, to simply recast the Sacrament as we wish. If this is all legalistic mumbo jumbo, why have the Sacrament at all? Why have any of the sacraments? Why have the Church? The hierarchy? The priesthood? Why not just dispense with this medieval nonsense and, being that we're so enlightened, ask God "directly?" Actually, why ask God at all? Why not absolve ourselves? Why not just make ourselves the arbiters of good and evil? 

That was tried once. It didn't quite work out, however. 

What if one happens to end up at a service, or with a priest, who makes this particular demand -- that the penitent only confess one sin? My suggestion would be to very gently ask the priest if he can hear a full, integral confession. If he refuses, go find another priest. 

And finally -- and this could easily become the subject of another blog post -- a plea to my brother priests -- the formula for absolution is not the place for creativity and expression of sentiment, pious or otherwise. Please stick to the formula, and do not leave any doubt or anxiety in the minds of your penitents whether they received a valid absolution. Please, Father. Please! 

For more, two very good articles by Jimmy Akin on this subject. 

Father Z also has a story about the Ass. of US Priests (a group I was unaware of), petitioning the US Bishops to institute widespread General Absolution. Great, let's just give up on the whole thing, already! 

Deus avertat!